The context is more important than the content in “Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special,” a spare one-man comedy show that the former “Weekend Update” anchor, knowing that he was ill, wrote and performed in a single take at home alone before his death in September. The posthumous release provides a fitting and deeply personal tribute, as well as a primer on the art of stand-up.
Netflix has packaged Macdonald’s performance, which runs a little over 50 minutes, with a half-hour discussion featuring six of his friends: Dave Chappelle, David Letterman, Adam Sandler, David Spade, Conan O’Brien, and Molly Shannon, who spend another 30 minutes or so reminiscing about him while deconstructing what viewers just saw.
Chappelle calls the stark setting “very endearing,” while Letterman notes that without an audience to respond to the material, “We weren’t watching standup comedy. Without that audience, you don’t get the full measure of Norm.”
What you do get is a clear reminder of Macdonald’s quirky sense of humor as he flits from topic to topic, occasionally engages in odd digressions and endures the kind of interruptions that have been common to work experiences during Covid, from his dog barking to answering a phone call and saying sorry, but he’s in the middle of taping a comedy special.
While Macdonald knew his time might be short, there’s nothing morbid or maudlin about the presentation, which essentially trains a camera on his face and lets him rip. The comic does mention living wills and a few other matters that touch upon mortality, but it’s no different in tone than his routine about preferring to gamble at Native-American casinos (“I look on it as a form of reparations”) or strategizing about cannibalism should he ever be on a plane that crashes in the Andes.
Like the controversies surrounding Netflix’s recent specials involving high-profile comics (the aforementioned Chappelle and more recently Ricky Gervais among them), Macdonald chafes against restrictions on what’s presently considered permissible for comedians to say and references how “Words have changed” in terms of what might cause offense. If that has become a kind of generational rift and ongoing debate, Macdonald seemingly wanted to let the world know where he stood.
Beyond that, Macdonald’s performance and the ensuing conversation/analysis (taped during Netflix’s recent Netflix Is a Joke comedy showcase) benefit from a relaxed quality, taking viewers behind the curtain where they can listen in on comics’ process and thoughts.
Macdonald mentions missing the thrill of being able to perform live, but there’s a comforting sense that he’s well aware he’s both doing something he loves and, for the last time, doing it both on a big stage and his own terms. As his producing partner, Lori Jo Hoekstra, described it, “He left this gift for all of us.”
However one responds to the various jokes, there’s something more sweet than sad about that. Macdonald is gone, but he was able to orchestrate his own curtain call, saying goodbye with a little help from his friends.
“Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special” premieres May 30 on Netflix.